At the crack of dawn, even before the rooster crows, an urban housewife wakes up, scrupulously cleans her kitchen, takes a bath, feeds the crows and throws the trash out into the curving street in front of her house. Sometimes it lands in her neighbor’s yard. The pan-chewing bania down the street does a similar thing with a similar mindset. He keeps his house squeaky clean but walks out into the street and spits his red spit on the road where mangled dogs sift through garbage amidst noisy motorists dodging cows, rodents and an occasional goat.
Their nonchalant attitude resonating with a million others is simply – the street is not my business. While the rich go by in their fancy cars spitting on the highways and the poor squat on pathways and bushes answering the call of nature, mosquitoes and fleas are having a field day spreading disease. Even the temples where the Gods are given ritualistic baths every day, the floors are host to food wrappers, leftover prasad, burnt offerings and withered flowers.
Some shudder at such a wondrous attitude and some others philosophize. The pervasive “chalta hai” attitude takes it all in stride. Our culture is great. We are on the highway to superpower-dom. God has made the seas surge, so he’ll take care of this too. All we need to do is bribe the priest. Even the religious leaders who endlessly spout religion, puja and the power of atman are strangely silent on this all important aspect of spirituality – cleanliness.
Not surprisingly, into this landscape of medieval un-cleanliness, rolled the great plague of Surat in September, 1994. The whole city shuddered as the black shadow of death stalked the streets and claimed its victims one by one, and line by line on the list of the dead and the dying. Swirling rumors of a poisoned water supply spawned a rising sense of panic and thousands fled. Dwindling supplies of tetracycline added to the hysteria. Infected migrants spread the disease to five other states. And the world and India suddenly woke up to the dust and grime. News media reported a total of 56 dead, 350,000 displaced people and a loss of over 1000 crore.
The Government appointed a committee and there was a big conference of important people with very advanced credentials. They sat in their hotels for several months and came up with an enlightened report which spelled “inconclusive.” Meanwhile it did not take a lot of thinking to state the obvious that unhealthy sewerage conditions and lingering insanitation paved the way to disease and death in Surat.
In 1925, Gandhiji wrote, “Our lavatories bring our civilization into discredit. They violate the rules of hygiene.” He referred to his toilet as his “temple”, and took an immense pride in keeping it clean. In his prolific writings, he attributes unclean habits and unhygienic conditions for the emergence of plague. His revolutionary mantra of cleanliness inspired another towering crusader in hygiene, Ishwarbai Patel, who built over 225000, affordable, scientific toilets for the poor and the destitute. There is a crying need for much more.
Battling un-cleanliness is not rocket science. It can be started by anyone possessing nutrients for a healthy mind – pride in the earth we belong, pride in our country and its culture. Not too long ago, girls from colleges and schools in Uttar Pradesh cleaned up the road to the Tajmahal as part of a cleanliness campaign launched in the city of Agra. Municipal commissioner, Shyam Singh Yadav, led the volunteers to pick up litter and promoted the much needed message that “cleanliness was everybody’s business.”
In addition to filling up the yawning void of values with a social conscience, and civic sense, cleanliness has been the red carpet of the hallowed spiritual ground trod by great mystics and holy monks. The ancient Aztecs and Egyptians follow the ritual bath to heal and commune. Cambodian kings wash away their impurities with mountain water. People immerse themselves in water for spiritual renewal, purification and revitalization of the soul. Millions intuitively acknowledge this intangible connection to a soothing spirituality when they journey to the Ganges for a holy dip.
The 17th century preacher, John Wesley, said in his much acclaimed one-liner, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Hopefully, the Godly in this country will shift their perspective a little, and invest in trash cans and toilets for their sprawling cities, instead of all- gold gopurams in the temples.
The father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi, clearly articulated “A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion.”